(Investigator 92, 2003 September)
The first record we have of Atlantis is found in the Timaeus and the Critias, two dialogues (named after the principal characters) written by the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 BC), who may have composed them about ten years before his death.
In Timaeus Plato
claims the history
of Atlantis was preserved in the records of the Egyptian priesthood,
that Solon (c. 639 - 559 BC, the Athenian poet and statesman obtained
account from this source. Plato further claims that the tale was heard
by Critias' grandfather, and is being retold by Critias in the
The story is basically this – nine thousand years before Plato's time
years ago from our perspective) there existed in the Atlantic Ocean an
island larger than the combined landmass of Libya and Asia:
(Note: Scholars refer to Timaeus and Critias by using the page numbers of Stephanus' edition (1578.) These numbers are printed in the margin of Lee's translation from which I am quoting.)
The existence of Atlantis has been accepted as a historical fact by many people, and the number of books written on the subject probably runs into several thousand. The idea of an advanced civilisation that possessed all manner of esoteric knowledge is very popular in New Age literature, and this idea is probably a flow on from the beliefs of earlier occult societies such as the Rosicrucians and Theosophists.
Timaeus & Critias
In the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, Plato outlines his ideas on Mankind, society, history and their relationship to the Cosmos from a philosophical and theological perspective. This is indicated by the introductory conversation in the Timaeus, where Plato makes Socrates say "my main object was to describe my view of the ideal state and its citizens." (Timaeus, 17.)
Plato appears to
viewed history as cyclical – from
a high point of cultural development, civilisation suffers
is destroyed by periodic cataclysms, and is reduced to a state of
from which it slowly emerges and, in his dialogues, Plato uses the
of Atlantis as a literary device to illustrate his idea:
The story of
been expanded and
altered by many people, however, the version that has had the most
on later writers is probably Ignatus Donnelly's Atlantis (published
1882) in which he claims that the first civilisation arose on the
of Atlantis, and that colonisers from this culture, which possessed
scientific knowledge and had a religion of sun worship, populated Asia,
the Americas and Europe. According to Donnelly, about 13,000 years ago
a volcanic cataclysm sunk the entire continent of Atlantis, and the
queens and heroes of this civilisation eventually became the gods and
of ancient religions. The problem is that Donnelly's thesis is not
by sound evidence:
believers, the idea
of a sunken continent in the Atlantic Ocean is ruled out by our
of geological processes – the Atlantic Ocean was formed by the break-up
Gondwana, an ancient super continent, through the action of continental
been another continent
in the Atlantic Ocean because as the continents drew apart, the
sea floor was progressively covered by water, thus ruling out the
of a continent sized landmass existing in the remote past.
Is it possible
could have existed 11,500 years ago in a location other than a
continent? Given what we know of ancient civilisations, it seems
Firstly, there is a link between the development of agriculture and the
emergence of highly urbanised cultures:
The problem is that 11,500 years ago, the major plant crops – the foundations of civilisation – were not even domesticated: emmer wheat and barley in Palestine, c. 10,600 years ago; rice in Indochina, c. 9,500 years ago; bulrush millet in Southern Algeria, c. 8000 years ago; potatoes in Peru c. (?) 10,000 years ago, and maize in Mexico, c. 7,700 years ago.
Secondly, the first record we have of a town – Jericho – dates from 10,600 years ago. Indeed, predominantly urbanised societies did not emerge until c. 6000 years ago – Uruk (population 7000), Nippur (pop. 5000) and Adab (pop. 5000) In Mesoamerica, civilisation developed much later – Ohmec, the earliest, flourished between c. 1,200 - 900 BC.
There is no
record for a highly advanced civilisation circa 11,500 years ago and,
that the Atlantean Empire was, according to Plato, rather extensive, it
is surprising that we find no trace of this culture or its influence on
other ancient civilisations. Indeed, the evidence to date indicates
civilisation arose independently in a number of different places:
A Grain of Truth?
Plato's Atlantis may
have been based on the destruction of Minoan Crete by a massive
eruption on the nearby island of Thera (now known as Santorini) around
is, in my opinion
possible, to date archaeologists have not discovered an ancient
document, myth or legend that resembles Plato's account. Moreover, the
Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC) makes no mention of Atlantis
in his Histories, which is, in my opinion, surprising
his extensive travels and interests:
It can be argued that the Egyptian document was the sole record of Atlantis, and by the time of Herodotus' journey through Egypt, the original had been lost, forgotten or destroyed, or that he simply did not speak to those who possessed this knowledge. However, Critias says "My father had his [Solon's] manuscript, which is now in my possession, and I studied it often as a child." (Critias, 113.) If this is true, then a translation would have been available to Herodotus.
Moreover, the dramatic date of the Timaeus and Critias is about 425 BC, and Critias says he first heard the story of Atlantis many years ago on Children's Day, during the festival of Apatoura, when he was about ten years of age (Timaeus, 21.) If Plato's dialogue is based on actual events, then Critias at the time of 425 BC, may have been about twenty. If this is a reasonable assumption, then the date of the festival would have been circa 435 BC, a time when Herodotus was still alive and writing The Histories at Athens.
From Plato's dialogues, it appears the story of Atlantis was told before an audience at the festival, and Critias would not have been the only one to have heard it. Such an interesting tale would, in my opinion have spread, and if this is a reasonable assumption, then why did it escape Herodotus' notice? Would Solon, if he knew of the story, have told it only to Critias' grandfather? Would Critias' grandfather, who heard of it from Solon and related it to Critias on that occasion, be doing so for the first time, especially when we consider the account glorifies prehistoric Athens?
It is possible
that Herodotus knew
of the story, but made no reference to it because it fell outside the
of The Histories,
which deal with the Persian Wars. However, in
order to make his books more interesting, Herodotus makes continual
introducing what he learned during his travels – anecdotes, natural
and geographical and historical information. Indeed, these digressions
fill nearly half of The Histories
and, considering that Atlantis
is an interesting story, it is strange if Herodotus knew of it, (and I
think he would if it existed before Plato's time), that he made no
to the fact, even in a casual way.
Plato's account of Atlantis appears to be a product of his own imagination – a kind of parable used to illustrate his ideas on man, society and history. Plato may have based his story on the destruction of Minoan Crete, however, there is no evidence from archaeology or comparative mythology to support this hypothesis, and therefore it must remain a speculative idea.
ADDENDUM: To show that fact can often be stranger than fiction, I draw my readers attention to the sunken cities of Herakleion and Canopus, whose fate bears a superficial resemblance to the legend of Atlantis. These cities were built at the mouth of the Nile (at the time, the river's main western branch emptied into the Mediterranean at Abu Qir), and prospered through the control of upriver traffic.
Today the ruins
Herakleion lie submerged
6.5 kilometres from land, while the eastern suburb of Canopus lies 1.6
kilometres offshore in up to 8 metres of water. These cities sank
the waves at different times (Herakleion – circa 1st century
AD and Canopus –
circa mid th century
AD), and their demise
may have been caused by the action of Nile floodwaters upon the
soil, resulting in a catastrophic subsidence of the land:
Calder, N. Timescale,
Chatto & Windus
The Hogarth Press, London, 1984.
Cottrell, L. The Lion Gate, Evans Brothers Ltd., London, 1963.
Daniel, G. The First Civilisations, Book Club Associates, London, 1974.
Downs, R.B. Books That Changed the World (Revised Edition), New American Library, New York, 1983.
Gardner, M. Fads & Fallacies In The Name Of Science, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1957.
Herodotus The Histories [Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. Revision, introduction & notes by John M. Marincola], Penguin Books, London, 1996.
Lamb, S. &Earth Story, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998. Sington, D.
Pain, S. Sunken Cities of the Nile, New Scientist, Vol 172, No. 2313
Plato Timaeus & Critias [Translation, introduction & appendix on Atlantis by Desmond Lee], Penguin Books, London, 1977.
Wenke, R.J.Pattems In Prehistory, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, 1980.